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Can India's Modi break the ice with Nepal?

Amid reservations, Narendra Modi's visit to Kathmandu aims to boost economic ties and rebuild trust between two nations.

Last updated: 02 Aug 2014 13:52
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Some analysts feel that the excitement over Indian PM's visit exposes Nepal's weaknesses [Harish Tyagi - EPA]

Kathmandu, Nepal - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives in Nepal on Sunday as New Delhi seeks to boost ties with its northern neighbour whose politicians have responded enthusiastically to the two-day trip.

After getting a red-carpet welcome in neighbouring Bhutan last month - his first port of call - Modi seems to have prioritised the South Asia neighbourhood over powerful western countries.

Nepal's Prime Minister Sushil Koirala is expected to receive Modi at the airport even as leaders of Koirala's party, the Nepali Congress, and the Unified Marxist-Leninist - a coalition partner - are working to forge a consensus on Nepal's agenda for the visit so that it can take advantage of this rare gesture.

Modi's visit - which is the first by an Indian premier in 17 years since Inder Kumar Gujral visited in 1997 - is aimed at boosting economic ties and rebuilding trust between New Delhi and Kathmandu.

"India seems to have realised that in order to be a global power, it has to first begin winning friends in the neighbourhood. India wants to take the neighbours into confidence," said Sudheer Sharma, editor-in-chief of Kantipur, Nepal's largest-selling newspaper.

Sudheer Sharma says India wants to take the neighbours into confidence [Kishor Kayastha l Al Jazeera]

Ties between the two countries are anchored by the Peace and Friendship Treaty signed in 1950 between then head of an oligarchic regime that was dying and the Indian ambassador to Nepal. Bhutan, which had signed a similar treaty with India in 1949, revised the pact in 2007.

The revision of the treaty has been a rallying cry for Nepal's communists, with the Maoists demanding its abrogation in their 40-point charter before they launched an insurgency in 1996, which ended in 2006.

New Delhi had played a key role in ending the insurgency, mediating a deal between parties protesting King Gyanendra Shah's autocratic rule, and the Maoists.

Nepal transitioned from a Hindu monarchy to a federal, democratic republic two years later.

"The treaty has been violated a number of times. In recent years, India has also shown interest in its revision," Sharma told Al Jazeera.

Suspicion remains

Over the years, Nepal's leftist parties, which dominate street protests, have inculcated anti-India sentiments among its supporters, creating a situation where any deal with India is held with suspicion.

India, the country's largest trading partner and a supplier of essentials such as fuel, has been accused of "micro-managing" Nepal's internal matters.

This occurred after the bilateral dealings were handed over to Indian intelligence officials as Nepal's peace process dragged on and Indian leaders engaged in domestic affairs.

India's ability to command respect is considerably diminished by the resistance it meets in the region... India's top strategic priority must be to deepen economic engagement in South Asia.

- Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy of India in the Twenty-First Century report

The shift in India's neighbourhood policy began to appear after a group of eight foreign policy experts, former top government officials and academics published a report titled Non-Alignment 2.0: A Foreign and Strategic Policy for India in the Twenty-first Century, in 2012, urging the government to zero in broadly on Asia and particularly on South Asia.

"India cannot hope to arrive as a great power if it is unable to manage [its] relationship within South Asia. India's ability to command respect is considerably diminished by the resistance it meets in the region," the 70-page report noted. "India's top strategic priority must be to deepen economic engagement in South Asia."

Modi's party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which was then in opposition, had criticised the government of the United Progressive Alliance for damaging India's image in the neighbourhood.

By the time Modi emerged as India's pre-eminent leader, the notion that the relations should be upgraded to the political level had already become stronger, said Sharma. "It seemed that Modi paid attention to these recommendations," he said.

Nihar R Nayak, an Indian expert on Nepal, echoes Sharma's words.

"Prime Minister Modi's visit would show that the final decision regarding Nepal would be taken in the higher level. Our neighbourhood is our primary foreign policy and Nepal is an important country in that approach," said Nayak, an associate fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, a state-funded think-tank based in New Delhi.

New Delhi is primarily concerned about political instability in Nepal, according to Nayak.

"The most challenging [factor] is political instability in Nepal. The narrative [in Nepal] is that India has stopped engaging Nepal. But it's not true. When a prime minister visits a country, he or she has to deliver something," said Nayak, the author of a recently published book, Strategic Himalayas: Republican Nepal and External Powers.

"For 10 years, Nepal had a Maoist insurgency. It was not appropriate for a prime minister to visit during that time. After the conflict, Nepal had five prime ministers in five years," he said.

Modi's litmus test

The first litmus test of Modi's foreign policy which focuses on a "neighbourhood first" approach, is likely to be Nepal, at once culturally and geographically close but wary of the big neighbour.

Over the years, Nepal has increasingly veered towards China, which in turn has rewarded its neighbour with largesse, including a 750 megawatt hydropower project, upgradation of Kathmandu's Ring Road and opening up of dry ports in the Himalayan region. There is even a talk of a rail route connecting the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, to Kathmandu.

In Kathmandu last weekend to prepare for the prime minister's maiden journey, Sushma Swaraj, Indian external affairs minister, said the trip was "more successful than I had expected".

Following a meeting with Nepal's Foreign Affairs Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey, she agreed to review the treaty and pledged to harness the hydropower potential of the Himalayan nation and upgrade the relations at the political level.

Some analysts, however, believe that the excitement over Modi's visit exposes Nepal's weaknesses.

There's a trust deficit between the two countries. India should first build trust. They started using faceless apparatus to deal with Nepal. They engaged in unnecessary intervention.

- Surya Nath Upadhyay, a water resource expert and former chief commissioner of Nepal's anti-graft body

"In Modi, we have found a personality who can, we believe, fix our problem. The big advantage will be on Modi's side. It will benefit Modi more than us due to the failure of our political leadership," Prakash Rimal, the editor of Kathmandu-based English newspaper The Himalayan Times, told Al Jazeera.

"Out of desperation, we are always looking for somebody who can keep our hopes alive. Each time there's a high profile visit, there's an aspiration which will not be fulfilled. Modi, too, will just give us hopes," he said.

Ram Karki, a senior Maoist leader, says it is too early "to expect a lot" from Modi.

"Modi is building an image as a leader who is concerned about his neighbourhood. This is the message he wants to give to the larger world and his visit to Nepal is part of this campaign," he told Al Jazeera.

"But our political parties seem beholden to this rather pragmatic gesture and seem to be scrambling to show extra loyalty towards him. You can't shake hands with fists. It's up to India to extend support. We are yet to see how Modi delivers and it's too early to expect a lot from him."

Modi will meet with President Ram Baran Yadav and Prime Minister Sushil Koirala during his visit. Modi will be the first foreign leader to address the parliament, which doubles as the constituent assembly tasked with writing, in Swaraj's words, an "inclusive constitution" for the young republic.

Modi will also visit Pashupatinath Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site popular among Hindus of both India and Nepal.

'Indian expansionism in Nepal'

While commentators like Rimal pointed fingers at the host country's shortcomings, a water resource expert and a former top government official said India needed Nepal to fulfil its own interests.

Mani Thapa believes that there won't be a radical change in the relations between the two countries [Courtesy - Mani Thapa]

"It's up to India whether it wants to take advantage of our water resource. And they need us more than we need them," said Surya Nath Upadhyay, a water resource expert and former chief commissioner of Nepal's anti-graft body.

"There's a trust deficit between the two countries. India should first build trust. They started using faceless apparatus to deal with Nepal. They engaged in unnecessary intervention," he said.

While the issue of handling Nepal affairs through a political channel has now been settled, Modi's challenge in Nepal may come from a hardline Maoist faction, which objects to "Indian expansionism in Nepal".

"Firstly, we don't believe that there will be a radical change in the relations between the two countries just because Modi is at the helms. It's only been three months since he came to power and we are yet to see how he delivers," said Mani Thapa, a leader of an alliance of 33 left and ethnic political parties.

"Secondly, Nepal is yet to complete the political process that began in 2006. We are yet to write a constitution. So, we should not go for historical treaties or agreements now," he told Al Jazeera.


RELATED: Nepal's journey from war to peace


Despite reservations from left wing leaders like Thapa, there's a pressure from opinion makers to employ a pragmatic approach rather than rabble-rousing.

They say Nepal should capitalise on this rare chance offered by an Indian prime minister, who unlike his predecessors, enjoys a solid hold on the New Delhi government and is keen on investing in Nepal and improving ties in the neighbourhood.

In the official government pronouncements, the relations between the two countries have been characterised as "unique", "special", and "close", but commentators such as Upadhyay don't see the visit achieving much beyond platitudes.

"From the past agreements and visits, there's no scope to believe that this visit would achieve anything significant. If we are happy with an agreement, then we would go ahead. The agreements should be on our terms," he said.

Follow Deepak Adhikari on Twitter: @DeepakAdk

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Source:
Al Jazeera
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